Husky basketball relishes wild ride to final four
Mar 30, 2017 12:07PM ● Published by Travis Barton
Senior Stockton Ashby goes for the block in the 4A semifinals against Springville. The Huskies only surrendered 55 points per game. (Suzanne Richins/Hillcrest Basketball)
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By Travis Barton | firstname.lastname@example.org
Hillcrest High School boys basketball team completed quite possibly its best season in 10 years finishing with a 17-7 record and a trip to the 4A final four.
“With this core group, it’s their fourth time to the tournament and it was nice to get that monkey off our back,” said head coach Sam Richins. “We wanted to get a win in the tournament and then after we got that, we weren’t ready to get off the ride.”
That roller coaster included a Stockton Ashby game-winning lay-up to beat Salem Hills in the first round and dispensing Highland in the quarterfinals before succumbing to eventual state champion Springville in the semis.
The Huskies last trip to the final four was in 2006. That was also the last time Hillcrest won a playoff game, with this senior-laden team having lost in the first round the previous three years.
“That first game (against Salem Hills), as soon as the game ended after I hit that shot I just started crying. That just meant so much,” said senior captain Ashby.
Joy for the team’s deep playoff run did not limit itself to the Husky roster. Richins said he had 30-40 former players and coaches text him their appreciation and well-wishes. Hillcrest even held a pep rally before the semifinal.
Richins said it was fun to see band, drama and soccer students get excited about a common goal.
“It was enormous, so positive,” Richins said of the community response. “The school community was thirsty for it, they were overdue for something like this.”
Ashby, who is also the student body president, said it was the first time he’s ever seen the school hold a pep rally for a sports team.
“It just meant a whole lot for the school…so many people just came out sending people texts, literally hundreds of people coming to support us, it was unbelievable,” he said.
Keys to success
The season’s success could be attributed to a variety of factors; from the cohesion and comradery built by the team to the dynamic line-ups it could create.
But coaches and players identified its balance, defense and ability to win close games as deciding factors for the season.
Without a player who averages 20 points a game, it was the offensive balance between the post players and guards that made them difficult to scout. Though Ashby led the team in scoring with 13 points a game, anyone could have a great night, including his freshman brother Brox who led the team with 17 points in their quarterfinal win over Highland.
“For the first time in a really long time we were an intimidating team,” Ashby said.
Richins said the 6-foot-5-inch senior Josh Villanueva made a big difference forcing teams to worry about him so guards could drive to the basket.
“He’s a once-every-20-years player here at Hillcrest,” Ashby said of the Huskies’ center.
Villanueva, originally from Dominican Republic before moving to Utah via New York, came to the school as a sophomore not having played much basketball. Richins said in January Villanueva wore jeans to the first open gym and wasn’t much of a dribbler. He now has a full-ride scholarship to Central Wyoming College.
“When I came here, I wasn’t really expecting anything out of it, I was just trying to get better and have fun with basketball and then it turned into a family, and we grew together,” Villanueva said.
Defensive tape worm
Hillcrest went 14-4 when keeping their opponents under 60 points this season.
“That was the key to our success in the state tournament was we were able to lock these teams (down),” Richins said.
Epitomizing the Huskies lock-down approach was a “tape worm” in the form of senior defensive specialist Josh Katzenbach.
Prior to a game against Skyline, the coaches decided to put the speedy Katzenbach on the Eagles’ leading scorer.
“[Coaches] weren’t sure how to defend him so they decided to try me on him and I was just in full-denial the whole game and I shut this guy down,” Katzenbach recalled of the 55-39 victory.
Next day at practice, he said Richins joked that Katzenbach was practically inside of the guy like a tape worm, and the name stuck.
“He wears that label with pride,” Richins said. Katzenbach, who plans to serve an LDS mission this summer and applied to Stanford, said he loved the name.
“It gives me a special role on the team. I’m the defensive guy, makes me feel pretty awesome,” Katzenbach, a 6-foot-1-inch guard, said.
If opponents ever had a 20-point scorer, Richins said they would unleash the “tape worm” who would stop or slow him down, whether it was big post player or quick point guards.
“I just try to annoy as much as possible,” Katzenbach said of defending players 60 pounds bigger than him. “I always have a hand on the guy and they start slapping it down and I put it right back up on them. You kind of get in their heads.”
7-1 in close games
In games decided on the last possession or overtime, Hillcrest went 7-1. Earlier in the season Ashby said he had a feeling the year was different because they were finding ways to win close games rather than lose them like in years past.
That ability came in handy in the first round of the state tournament with a 59-58 come-from-behind win.
“You hate to flirt with fire, but luckily we came out on the right side of it this year,” Richins said.
Ashby, who plans to serve an LDS mission after graduation, said experience and toughness played a role in helping form their mentality.
“We had a lot of guys that aren’t afraid of the moment,” he said.